Turkey’s Democratic Breakdown and Press Freedom
Society of Professional Journalists, USA
- *Corresponding Author:
- Bora Erdem
Society of Professional Journalists, USA
Tel: +1- 352 205 9435
Received Date: May 21, 2018; Accepted Date: May 24, 2018; Published Date: June 01, 2018
Citation: Erdem B. Turkey’s Democratic Breakdown and Press Freedom. Global Media Journal 2018, 16:30.
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This essay aims to explore the progress and setbacks regarding press freedom in Turkey in line with Ankara’s decade-long efforts for EU accession, and EU standards in particular during Justice and Development Party (AKP) administration over the past decade. Its central theme is to analyze the major components of media system and how press freedom faced obstruction and challenges in Turkey’s everevolving and changing political domain beset by periodic crises and direct and indirect interference from non-governmental actors, bureaucratic power sources and outside elements. The scope of the study spans several decades, but mostly focuses on the past few years. It examines the cases of journalists who faced prison sentences and different forms of legal investigations in Turkey over their journalistic works and how they brought their cases to the Strasbourg-based European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) when all options for legal remedy at domestic legal channels have been rendered near impossible. Press freedom in Turkey according to European standards, therefore, happens to be the main theme of the study to offer a comparative analysis regarding entrenched problems in Turkey’s legal system and how the ECtHR involved in cases regarding media freedom. It delves into details of specific cases that were taken by the Strasbourg-based court, which has recently been overwhelmed by tens of thousands of applications from Turkey in the aftermath of a failed coup in 2016. Taken in a broader historical perspective and context, the study aims to provide a background to the problems that have dogged Turkey in terms of media freedom from the EU prism. Given that more than 100 journalists languish in Turkey’s prisons and around 160 media outlets have been shut down in the post-coup crackdown, the issue appears to be currently relevant to today’s politics.According to New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), Turkey is the top jailer of journalists in the world. As a methodological framework, the essay will provide a narrative, descriptive history of the media and government relations. It will also offer content analysis and historical assessment to make a compelling case.
Turkey; Press freedom; EU; Democratic breakdown
Introduction: Press Freedom in EU
Haunted by bitter memories1 and the profound impact of the
fascism and totalitarianism in 1930s across many of the European
countries, European policy makers moved to consolidate the
social forces of democracy and freedom of expression in the political landscape of Western Europe in the aftermath of
the Second World War. In the long path to the formation of
the today’s European Union, ‘press freedom’ emerged as the
central pillar of democratic West and European Convention of
Human Rights was the foundational text that defined freedom
of expression and thought, and press freedom, accordingly. The
attempt aimed to provide an opportunity for plurality, diversity
and alternative voices in public sphere and political domain, with
no limitation on the right of any citizen or an outlet to express
any form of thought in any fashion. In a broad reflection of liberal understanding of democratic systems, press freedom conceived
to be the main touchstone of a democratic society in post-WWII
Western Europe. With the evolution of the common European
economic market into European Coal and Steel Community, then
European Economic Community (EEC) in 1950s, the Western
conception of the press freedom became the standard bearer
and the defining element of liberties regulating media business
and publications across the Free World during the Cold War .
Turkey also looked at EU as the main source of inspiration and
guidance before adoption of the principles defining, both on
legal and literal terms, the press freedom. Ankara became a
founder of Council of Europe in 1949, and a signing part to the
European Convention on Human Rights and its relevant articles
on free press. During its waves of expansion over the past half
century through inclusion of new member countries to the club,
EU set press freedom as one of the main criteria to measure the
readiness of a new member to fit the conditions existent within
the union. During its progress reports to evaluate the democratic
outlook of a candidate country, rapporteurs assigned by Brussels
for every candidate meticulously and laboriously work to come up
with a detailed assessment to judge how much the given country
improves the state of media freedom. The mechanism allows the
EU to see whether a candidate country worked enough to secure
liberties defined by Copenhagen Criteria regarding freedom of
expression and press.
According to cardinal principle prevalent among the foundational
philosophy of EU, media freedom is regarded as the defining
element of a democracy and rule of law in a country where
political authorities cannot limit people’s right to access to
information and their right to express themselves without any
restriction. Article 10 of the Convention sets media freedom as
1. Everyone has the right to freedom of expression. This right
shall include freedom to hold opinions and to receive and
impart information and ideas without interference by public
authority and regardless of frontiers. This article shall not
prevent States from requiring the licensing of broadcasting,
television or cinema enterprises.
2. The exercise of these freedoms, since it carries with duties
and responsibilities, may be subject to such formalities,
conditions and restrictions or penalties as are prescribed by
law and are necessary in a democratic society, in the interests
of national security, territorial integrity or public safety, for
the prevention of disorder and crime, for the protection of
health or morals, for the protection of the reputation and
rights of others, for preventing the disclosure of information
received in confidence, or for maintaining the authority and
impartiality of the judiciary.2
In this regard, EU comes up with mechanisms to ensure
media freedom to keep a check on any unwitting drift toward
authoritarianism that would stifle dissent and critical voices.
The ECtHR is one of the institutions, in this respect, and has
jurisdiction and authority to punish signing states for violation
of the media freedom. In line with its foreign policy orientation,
diplomatic and military realignment with the West in the onset
of the Cold War in the face of Soviet threats, Turkey became3 a party to the European institutions and treaties that regulate
the workings and independence of the press. However, Turkey
has had a dismal record, a disheartening statistics that expose
almost an unbridgeable gap between its commitment to the
principle of media freedom and human rights, and its failure
to live up to its promises in practice . Between 1959 and
2014, the ECtHR ruled against Turkey 3,095 times for violation
of human rights, elevating the country to the top spot as worst
violator.4 Just equally important, out of 591 rulings, 248 ones
took place against Turkey in cases about media freedom within
the same time period. Only in 2014, out of 47 decisions about
freedom of expression violations, 24 ones were taken in relation
to Turkey. The history of the ECtHR rulings unmistakably points
to a problematic pattern for Turkey where democracy and media
freedom repeatedly suffer setbacks.
In legal terms, Turkey has no luxury of ignoring the ECtHR rulings,
whatever the diplomatic and political relations between Ankara
and Brussels might be at a particular moment. In a novel and
groundbreaking reform move, the Turkish government amended
the 90th article of 1980 constitution in 2004 to pave the way for
adjusting its domestic laws in compliance with EU criteria .
With the change, the ECtHR rulings, which oversee whether rights
are violated or not during domestic legal process, have become
binding and final for Turkey’s legal system. Not surprisingly, the
2004 amendment heralded a new chapter in Turkey’s relations
with EU. It also opened the way for journalists who believed that
their rights were violated and they failed to get justice within the
realm of domestic legal channels to apply to ECtHR to hear their
The 2000s saw a resurgence, or explosion, in personal applications
to the Strasbourg-based court. The decade revealed structural
contradictions as well. While Turkey embarked5 on an ambitious
reform period in pursuit of its decades-old aspirations for EU
accession, openings and novel reforms did not correspond to a
tangible progress in individual rights and media freedom.
A Brief History of Press in the Ottoman
Empire and Turkish Republic
A brief look at the history of press in late Ottoman Empire exposes long-standing challenges that define a strained relationship
between media and political authorities. The press was regarded
by the intellectuals of the day as a political agent to push for social
change and political reform during the 19th century. Since 1860s,
constitutionalists6 and dissidents of the Palace published critical
newspapers abroad to challenge the absolute power of Sultan,
defending the adoption of a new constitution and Parliament to
mitigate the disastrous effects of the social forces of nationalism
and separatism among ethnic minorities. The Empire’s endurance
during the long 19th century, and especially in its second part,
was tested by the trial of triumphant ideology of nationalism,
which swept the entire European political landscape after the
French Revolution. The Sublime Porte faced demands by ethnic
minorities on self-determination and political autonomy in the
Balkans. Ottoman intellectuals viewed constitutional reform as a
potential solution to moderate demands of elites of the Christian
citizens, and systematically used press to advance their cause
in political domain. This triggered a bitter contest between the
Palace and intellectuals, with ominous ramifications for the press
freedom . Namik Kemal7 and his friends published the Hurriyet
daily (which has no relation to today’s Hurriyet newspaper) in
Paris in 1868, defending constitutional reforms. It followed by
other critics of the Sultan in other European countries. Either due
to pressure from Istanbul or financial hardships, dissidents was
forced to shut down their outlets. The diplomatic court of the
Sultan also pressured countries, France or Switzerland, to shut
down critical newspapers run by Young Ottomans, threatening to
shun them out of lucrative tenders to modernize certain sectors
of the Ottoman economy. Reminiscent of Ankara’s showdown
with EU countries over allowing Kurdish media outlets in 2000s,
it unleashed a series of diplomatic rows between the empire and
European countries over Istanbul’s pursuit of its dissident citizens
abroad. Today, Ankara seeks to use Interpol to crack down on
its journalists abroad, revealing a similar pattern that deeply
entrenched in the psyche of the Turkish state .
Though constitutionalists enjoyed a brief moment of success
when young Sultan Abdulhamid II endorsed the proposal for a
new constitution and steered the establishment of Constitutional
Assembly in 1876 after the overthrow of Sultan Abdulaziz by a
bureaucratic coup, the triumph of the young reformist generation
proved to be short-lived. The outbreak of the Ottoman-Russian
War enabled Sultan to dismantle nascent Parliament, reversing
the gains of the Young Ottomans, postponing their dreams for
another three decades. The sultan’s 33-year-long reign was
characterized as “repression (istibdat) regime” where media,
all forms of organized dissent and political opposition were
systematically suppressed. The era was associated with tyranny,
according to the widely-shared conviction by most of the studies
Until a violent takeover of political power by Young Turks in 1913, the press world endured a great deal of freedom unseen in a
century when the first media outlets appeared in the Ottoman
Empire. Diversity, pluralism and freewheeling ideas dominated
media before another era of repression and censorship. A brief
and relative atmosphere of freedom after the downfall of Sultan
Abdulhamid II, however, did not long last. The dictatorship of
the Committee of Union and Progress (CUP) between 1913 and
1918 constituted a new low-water mark for press freedom,
as the country plunged into a series of devastating wars that
eventually brought the demise of the empire after the World War
One. What followed after was a mixed story. During the War of
Independence, the press was again colorful and diverse.
After 1925 when a Kurdish rebellion shook the young republic to
its roots, political authorities announced martial law across the
country, and began to impose tremendous pressure on media.8 The 1931 law9 about printing and press sealed the authoritarian
control of media, with no critical voice that would challenge the
reforms by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk was allowed. The strict control
of the press lasted until multi-party political life. To become
part of the Western world, President Ismet Inonu allowed the
establishment of another political party and gave his approval for
multi-party elections in 1946 . It also had an impact on media.
The ideological split between the right and left in Cold War’s
Turkey first roared its ugly face in 1945 when printing machines
of Tan, a left-leaning of newspaper, were looted and smashed by
an angry nationalist mob.10 The 1950 elections marked a political
watershed in history of modern Turkey, with historical election
defeat of the Republican People’s Party (CHP), founded by
Ataturk. People vented their frustration at ballot box and brought
Democrat Party (DP) to power. Apart from anti-communist
hysteria and crackdown on leftist outlets, Turkey’s media saw a
brief period of diverse media outlets. Unfortunately, DP, which
ruled Turkey until its removal from power by a military coup in
1960, began to exert widening pressure on the press in the final
days of its rule. Especially in 1959 and 1960, dozens of opposition
media outlets faced outright police raids. Shortly before the coup,
it even formed “Tahkikat Komisyonu” (Investigation Commission)
to prosecute opposition lawmakers and journalists. The creation
of commission with only DP members expectedly produced a
political storm that eventually brought down the government.
The DP, which was elevated to power by people after 27-year CHP
rule, exploited and abused its powers, undermining an essential
tenet of democracy -- media freedom. The next 30 years of press
saw similar ups and downs. During 1970s, the country was bitterly
divided over the lines of political affiliation with the right and
left, with political violence wreaking havoc and tearing apart the
social fabric. More than 5,000 people were killed between 1975
and 1980. The media epitomized the ideological split between
the right and left. The 1980 military coup swept political and social domain, crushing critical and leftist media outlets. With
the takeover of the government, the military-led junta sought
de-politicization of the college youth by forcing press to be less
occupied with hardcore political issues .
The 1990s saw expansion of private media ownership. The year
of 1990 also marked the breakdown of state monopoly over
television broadcasting. The flourishing of TV channels enabled
diversity and plurality in media. Abundance of new channels and
emergence of new newspapers did not correspondingly point
to a new dawn in terms of freedom of expression . Themes
regarded within realm of national security and political issues of
secularism were still viewed as taboo and off-limit for discussion
amid newfound enthusiasm in new media age.
EU Process and Media Freedom
Given the turbulent relationship between decision makers and
media owners, and constant limitations on performing media
freedom has been one of the enduring sources of friction between
EU and Turkey. With Turkey being declared as a candidate country
in 1999, Ankara has found itself tasked with a series of reforms to
adjust its domestic legal structure in every field, criminal justice
system, human rights, minority rights, business, and media
freedom, in line with EU standards.
The AKP’s rise to power in 2002 heralded a new era in Turkey’s
modern political history. The AKP’s Islamic roots became source
of concern for potential clash with democracy and secularist roots
of the political system. But the party became a loyal and ardent
supporter of EU process, and even enacted groundbreaking
reforms not seen in modern memory. It did more than any other
party to enrich cultural rights of Kurds, expand liberties and
liberalize Turkey’s economy. The pace of reforms baffled many
observers and even placed the prospect of Turkey’s accession
to the EU within the realm of possibility . According to
Meltem Muftuler Bac, the EU became one of the main drivers of
democratization in Turkey in the early 2000s.11 For the AKP, which
aroused genuine fears in secular segments of society, a hostile
bureaucracy and a skeptical military, the EU path is the most
secure way of consolidating its power in the face of challenges
from old guards of Turkey’s political system.
Months before Islamist AKP’s elevation to the power in 2002, a
previous coalition government indeed laid the groundwork for
adjusting Turkey’s institutions, legal framework and norms to
be consistent and compliant with EU norms and mechanisms.
Whatever the AKP did between 2002 and 2005, it built on
the reform package enacted in 2002 summer. The coalition
government laid a proposal for elimination of death penalty in
that summer, and the AKP government signed it into law in 2004
, finally abolishing death penalty that has not been carried
out since 1983. It approved the right to print and broadcasting in
languages other than Turkish in 2004, paving the way for Kurdish
media outlets to be active and working without legal restrictions.
Though billed as a period of reforms, the early AKP era was of
course was not without challenges or flaws as Turkey’s notorious counter-terrorism law, especially the Article 301 of Criminal Penal
Code, remained to be legal source of prosecutors to investigate
journalists, writers and artists for their critical pieces and opinions.
The vague law gives a great latitude to prosecutors to regard any
critical expression of thought questioning the modern Turkish
nation-state, the nationalist ethos of the state and its practices
as criminal conduct on charges of “denigrating Turkish nation
or insulting Turkishness.” For instance, Orhan Pamuk’s display
of views that are close to the Armenian position on the issue of
‘Armenian Genocide’ sparked a legal investigation against him.
The ever-comprehensive nature of “national security” themes
encompass many layers of social conduct and public dialogue
either in academia or media sphere. Turkey’s legal authorities
mostly subscribed to the “national security first” approach and
used relevant articles in criminal penal code or counter-terrorism
law as justification for prosecution of writers. In this respect,
Hrant Dink, Elif Safak, Ahmet Altan, Orhan Pamuk and a dozen
of other writers faced criminal investigations for questioning
major components of the nation-state or its oppressive practices
against Kurds, Alevis, left and minority groups .
This period saw a surge in applications from Turkey to the
Strasbourg-based court. Turkey and Russia occupied the top of
the list of countries, which were sentenced to pay compensation
and fines to thousands of applicants over violation of their rights.
The ECtHR ruled against Turkey’s authorities in a number of
cases concerning freedom of expression. In 2005, Erbil Tusalp,
a columnist with the left-leaning Birgun daily, wrote a critical
piece against then-Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan over
allegations of corruption. He charged Erdogan and his government
with exploiting public resources and employ the term of “stability”
to cloak increasing cases of corruption from public view. His
accusations of using religion for political goals elicited a harsh
reaction from the prime minister who filed a lawsuit against the
journalist and sought compensation. A local court ruled against
the Birgun columnist. The decision was approved by the Supreme
Court in next step. Both Tusalp and Birgun were sentenced to pay
fines against the prime minister. In another piece same year, the
same journalist questioned the mental health of Erdogan. That
column also triggered another lawsuit and conviction in Turkey’s
courts. The journalist brought the two cases to the ECtHR, which
then ruled against Erdogan and his government. The court said
freedom of expression was applied in broadest sense against
public figures.12 The government insisted that the journalist
went beyond the acceptable bounds of free speech and insulted
personal rights and integrity of the prime minister. The case was
of crucial importance for the reason that it revealed the approach
of then-Prime Minister Erdogan and the government toward
media in a long series of showdowns that finally laid the ground
for full-scale political mastery of Turkey’s media landscape .
In another case concerning free expression, constitutional expert
Mustafa Erdogan wrote an article in 2001, criticizing a ruling by
Constitutional Court to shut down Fazilet (Felicity) Party. He faced
a lawsuit by the members of Turkey’s top court. In his article,
Professor Erdogan questioned the decision from legal perspective and offered a sober analysis of the structural flaws embedded in
Turkey’s criminal justice system. The problem in shutdown of a
political party, he construed, was not shortcomings of the legal
framework regulating political parties and affairs, but rather
the way the members of the court interpreted existing laws
and constitution from a very narrow angle with an authoritarian
mindset.13 It was not Parliament that failed to enact legislation
and amend the constitution, the professor noted. The main
obstacle was the Constitutional Court, which had no problem
with shredding liberties, itself, he wrote. In the same article, he
questioned the qualification of the members and criticized them
for lacking desire to improve themselves in the legal profession.
His piece sparked a furious reaction from top court members who
filed lawsuits against the professor. Turkey’s courts ruled against
Professor Erdogan who eventually brought the issue to the EctHR
. The Strasbourg-based court ruled in favor of the professor
on the ground that he used his right to free expression.
Turkey’s Democratic Breakdown
Turkey’s pivot away from Western-style democracy has taken
place since the early 2010s and taken a full-fledged form since the
botched coup in 2016. The political crackdown on Kurdish activists
and pro-Kurdish political party expanded to include Kurdish
journalists in 2011 and 2012.14 Several dozens of journalists were
placed behind bars on the grounds of disseminating terrorist
propaganda and working on behalf of a terrorist organization to
advance its cause through use of media tools.
The Gezi Protests in summer 2013 and the outbreak of a
politically explosive corruption scandal that tainted then-Prime
Minister Erdogan in late 2013 have proved to be a watershed
moment to pinpoint the exact timeline for Turkey’s democratic
breakdown. It also signified the ever-growing strangling of media,
with mainstream media outlets finding themselves at the mercy
of political whims of the authorities, mostly Erdogan. The evertightening
grip over media was unmistakably evident during Gezi
Protests when majority of media outlets self-consciously did
not air the eruption of public discontent and became a source
The social upheaval over environmental issues metastasized
into display of mass anger in streets where people of all social
conviction and political affiliation, in mostly secular sectors of
society, registered their dissent with the government’s recent
mega projects that set to transform the urban landscape of
Istanbul. A leaked audio tape featured Erdogan intervening to
change a subtitle on a TV screen during Gezi Protests while he
was on a diplomatic visit to Morocco. The tape encapsulated
the scope of his micromanagement and overreach, revealing
the depth of his engagement with even small editorial matters
. Erdogan systematically pressured media owners to fire
certain columnists and journalists he deemed to be critical of
him over the past decade. The political interference in media
took several forms. One was to encourage pliant businessmen to purchase mainstream media outlets, offering lucrative loans
from public banks.15 The second was direct political pressure on
media bosses. Media tycoons and barons are loath to be cut off
the hook in public tenders, therefore they sought the good grace
of politicians, mostly Erdogan in the Turkish case.
When a massive graft scandal broke out on Dec. 17, in 2013,
Prime Minister Erdogan responded with a sweeping purge in
judiciary and police, inflicting a debilitating damage on the rule of
law and judicial independence. Media, too, did not go unscathed
as authorities began to choke off critical media outlets through
a series of new laws curbing free expression and unrestrained
access to information on internet. The year of 2014, therefore,
began to mark16 a new, dark period for Turkey’s media. In late
2015, authorities seized Ipek Medya outlets while in March 2016
the largest newspaper in Turkey, Zaman daily, was taken over
in an outright seizure with police crackdown on the newspaper
The breakdown of democracy in Turkey is part of a larger
trend that has taken hold around the world. A global surge in
authoritarianism to the detriment of liberal democracy has had a
rippling impact even in democratic EU bloc, as Poland and Hungary
have appeared to be in thrall of populist nationalism. Those two
countries, according to some experts, are no longer viewed as
democratic.18 The loath for Western-style liberal democracy is no
longer held by fringe elements on both sides of the political aisle,
but has become a mainstream conviction shared by major parties
of the center-right and center-left .
According to political scientist Murat Somer, Turkey also suffers
from this global trend, which seriously threatens to tear apart
the ascendancy of liberal democracy as a political system.19 In
addition to economic crisis, the migration problem has revived
old issues of identity politics while culture wars now define
results of elections and shape next governments across Europe.20
As a recent development, a new generation of rulers who
owed their ascension to power to democratic means but later began to subvert democracy have emerged across the globe.
“One of the most critical challenges to the media comes from
a new generation of popularly elected autocrats -- call them
“democratators”,” Joel Simon wrote in his new book, “The New
Censorship: Inside The Global Battle for Media Freedom.”21
“Deprived of ideological basis for state control of information
since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the democratators have
adapted to the new global reality,” he noted, elaborating on how
new generation of autocrats well accommodated themselves to
the new age through use of democratic channels and media. But
this new creed of politicians cannot be easily labeled as dictators.
They employ different set of methods at their disposal, and they
attentively differentiate themselves from the use of brute force
deployed by the dictators of the past.
“Dictators rule by force. Democratators rule by manipulation.
Dictators impose their will. Democratators govern with the
support of the majority. Dictators do not claim to be democrats
-- at least credibly. Democratators always do. Dictators control
information. Democratators manage it,”22 Silmon wrote,
identifying the points of difference between dictators and what
he called today’s democratators .
According to this explanatory framework, Silmon places President
Erdogan in this category and goes, at great length, to describe
how the Turkish strongman formed his autocratic rule through
the mastery of media, managed control of democracy and
suppressing opposition through the legitimate tools of existing
political system without outright establishing a dictatorial rule.
He scrupulously crafted his strategies so as not to alienate tourists
or international community when they engage with Turkey.
He cloaked his repressive regime from public view or outright
observation through managed media. But this was before the
2016 coup. In the aftermath, the repression was and is out there
in plain sight.
The recent literature of political and social sciences are awash with
studies after a resurgence of scholarly interest in the resurrection
of authoritarianism at global scale. In How Democracies Die,
two Harvard scholars Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt cite
political authorities’ threatening of civil society and media as
an indication of an authoritarian turn in a country.23 The gist
of their argument is that “democracies die in three stages: the
election of an authoritarian leader, the concentration and abuse
of governmental power and finally, the complete repression of
opposition and citizens.” The two scholars also list Turkey as an
example of a democratic breakdown.
Against this backdrop, it is safe to assume that how authorities
treat media emerges as one of the crucial indicators of a
democratic outlook of a given country. This angle is particularly
pertinent after “truth” and “post-truth age” have become the main elements of contemporary intellectual debate about
media. The Economist’s depiction of post-truth politics24 sits
well with these debates since Donald J. Trump’s unrelenting
campaign against mainstream media and his portrayal of media
reports as “fake news” . The dawn of the post-truth age is full
of examples with political leaders waging vendetta against media
institutions around the world.
Conclusion: Turkey’s Media after 2016
Throughout the 2000s, the story of media in Turkey was once
promising and hopeful given Ankara’s decades-long aspirations
to become a full-fledged member of the world’s most elite
political club -- the EU. It would have been culmination of the
country’s century-long foreign policy orientation set by the
founding father, Ataturk, after steady and consistent drive toward
integration with the Western civilization. According to scholars,
EU has played a great role in democratization of Turkey’s political
system and helped civilian government tame a military whose
penchant for interference in political affairs resulted in two direct
and two indirect coups. What started as an inspiring story of a
Turkish model25 representing successful combination of political
Islam, democracy and a prospering economy for the Middle
Eastern region terribly wandered off the track under the same
Needless to say, the political control of media marks crumbling
of a democratic system where authorities feel unrestrained and
unbound to carry out any policy without fear of public backlash.
Turkey’s lurch toward non-democratic mode of governance did
not happen all of a sudden. President Erdogan’s gradual power
grab through the use of democratic channels points to another
phenomenon called as illiberal democracy where authoritarian
leaders are elected by popular vote, but they slowly expand their
grip beyond checks and balances system step by step. The slowmotion
shipwreck in terms of democratic decline since 2013 has
escalated after a failed coup in 2016.
The botched coup rattled entire nation, killed 241 people
and wounded nearly 2,000 citizens. The nonsensical violence
was ingrained in collective memory of the Turkish society for
generations to come. What happened in the putsch’s aftermath
was still an unfolding saga, with disastrous echoes for Turkey’s
democracy, rule of law and media freedom. Numbers are
staggering . President Erdogan and his government used the
abortive coup as a justification to launch a sweeping purge in the
military, judiciary, police and civil service. The government has
since ruled the country with decrees, which have the full force
of laws, and placed Turkey under the state of emergency since then. More than 150,000 public servants26 have been summarily
suspended or sacked without due process. According to the
United Nations, Ankara has detained around 160,000 people
since the coup.27 Out of them, more than 50,000 people, including
generals, diplomats, teachers and ordinary citizens, have been
imprisoned on coup-related or terrorism charges. The Turkish
authorities placed the blame on faith-based Gulen Movement for
the attempted coup. Both U.S.-based cleric Fethullah Gulen and
his sympathizers reject any link to the coup.
Though the government cracked down on Kurds and the left as
well, members of Gulen Movement have borne the brunt of the
post-coup clampdown. The authorities have encouraged social
witch-hunt and urged people to inform on their neighbors,
workplace friends and even their family members if they have any
real or perceived ties to Gulen Movement. The toxic atmosphere
of the purge and witch-hunt shattered major components of
Turkey’s social fabric and led to the collapse of mutual trust and
civic dialogue in public domain.
The post-coup crackdown began to unwind central pillars of the
republican democracy and shredded whatever left of judicial
independence after mass imprisonment of more than 3,000
judges and prosecutors the day after the coup. It has equally left
the academia in disarray with sacking of nearly 7,000 academics.
All branches of government were hit hard by the purge .
Not surprisingly, authorities have also crushed critical and
independent media. More than 160 media outlets have been
shut down28 and, according to Turkish Journalists Association,
154 journalists have been jailed.29 Some of the journalists were
released later while authorities imprisoned new ones. The
damage on existing institutions and media is beyond repair .
Additionally, a controversial referendum on adoption of executive
presidential system took place last year. According to European
observers,30 the pre-referendum campaign and the vote took place in unfair conditions where opposition who supported the
No vote regarding constitutional amendment had little chance
and room to express their voice. In contrary, President Erdogan
and cabinet ministers enjoyed great deal of advantages at
their disposal. Both state-run and pro-government media aired
more ads and campaign of the Yes vote . During this period,
mainstream media found itself under great pressure and gave
little space to the opponents of the constitutional change. A
razor thin victory with 51.4 percent of the votes sealed what the
president craved all for his life -- a shift to executive presidency
. The 2017 referendum exposed the dismal state of media no
matter what the political consequences were. The result would
have been different had the media been free was a conviction
shared by many.
With the sale of Dogan Media Group to a pro-government
businessmen, the destruction of mainstream media has been
completed, Cumhuriyet columnist Kadri Gursel wrote after the
acquisition last month .31 The deal marked the end of an
era, Andrew Finkel, who in the past worked with Dogan media
outlets, told Financial Times.32
In conclusion, the post-coup crackdown crippled Turkey’s public
institutions, decimated Turkey’s most experienced civil servants
and army generals, and hollowed out its independent and critical
media outlets one by one. Free expression under the state of
emergency has been systematically targeted . During Turkey’s
military offensive against Kurdish enclave of Afrin, hundreds
of people were detained over their anti-war opinions. Tens of
thousands of social media account owners face investigation
over their opinions about political matters. Numbers are baffling.
So is the scope and depth of repression. Even Turkey’s already
stalled EU process does not instill any confidence for an end to
the protracted state of emergency and the ensuing crackdown on
dissent. Brussels has no leverage or influence left in dealings with
Ankara . If the past is any guide, Turkey may well pull itself
out of the looming precipice. After military coups in the past, and
especially after the 1980 coup, which saw arrests of more than
hundreds of thousands of people, Turkey gradually found its foot
on right track by recovering its democracy step by step.
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23Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, How Democracies Die, (New York: Penguin Random House, 2018), 24.
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